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The One and Only Carolina Snowball

For more than a decade in the mid-twentieth century, the Lowcountry had its own year-round Snowball. Then kidnappers from further south whisked her away to an entirely different existence. Just who was the Carolina Snowball, and how did her fate change the future for marine mammals throughout the United State?



A Local Beauty

Pods of friendly dolphins have likely always been a common sight in the waters around Hilton Head and its sister Sea Islands. Beginning around 1950, though, one dolphin stood out from the rest. Boaters started reporting a pure white bottlenose dolphin cruising around Port Royal Sound and St. Helena Sound, often greeting fishermen when they hauled in their day's catch and undoubtedly hoping for some of their leftovers. There had never been a recorded sighting of an albino dolphin anywhere, so this pink-eyed, ebony-toothed gal was considered one of a kind. Rarer than rare, she became a Sea Islands celebrity of sorts, with locals dubbing the pale beauty "Snowball." For more than a decade they appreciated her from a distance as she lived among her pod and, in the early 1960s, gave birth to a normal gray son.


Hunted

Unbeknownst to her, though, Snowball's freewheeling Lowcountry lifestyle was coming to a close. Apparently enticed by the thought of a hefty profit, a Beaufort shrimper notified folks at the Seaquarium in Miami, Florida about his area's unique marine mammal. Wouldn't Snowball be a grand addition to the show? The Seaquarium's own Captain Bill Gray agreed wholeheartedly, stating in his book Friendly Porpoises, "Nothing could be more exciting and gratifying than to catch a real white dolphin!" (Incidently, although related, dolphins and porpoises are two distinct species of animal.) Gray and his crew headed to Beaufort County and, with the assistance of the ambitious shrimper, set out to catch a Snowball.


Gray wasn't prepared for the resistance he encountered upon his arrival. Locals protested and sent angry letters to newspapers and radio stations throughout the state. (Life magazine would later refer to the Carolinians' outrage as "jealousy" of the Seaquarium and its collection of sea life.) Urged by Lowcountry citizens, in early 1962 the South Carolina state legislature passed a law against the harassment and/or capture of dolphins in the waters of Beaufort County. But even this would not be enough to save Snowball.


On August 4, 1962, after weeks of actively tracking their prey, Grey and his crew followed the mother dolphin and her year-old baby across county lines into Colleton County where, conveniently, catching a wild dolphin was legal. As the friendly pair of animals approached the boat, they were trapped in a trawling net and hauled aboard. By all accounts, the capture was a difficult one, with the 8-foot-long, 300-pound dolphin thrashing around in repeated attempts to maintain her freedom. In the end, Snowball and her son were both property of the Miami Seaquarium.


A Strange New World

Quickly renamed "Carolina Snowball and her baby Sonny Boy," the two dolphins were transported by truck to Miami and introduced to their new lives in show business. As "the Only Albino Dolphin in the World," Carolina Snowball immediately became the star attraction at the Seaquarium, appearing on billboards and brochures, in magazines, in Viewmaster reels, and even as a popular wax mold collectible. Millions of tourists flocked to see this one-of-a kind creature and her rather more typical son. All was grand for the Miami Seaquarium.


In his award-winning novel The Prince of Tides, Lowcountry author Pat Conroy describes how his character Tom Wingo drives to Miami with his siblings and rescues the white dolphin from her life of imprisonment. The book tells of the family returning the animal to an inland waterway near Port Royal Sound to live out her long life in freedom. But The Prince of Tides is a fictional story, and Snowball did not have a happy ending. After resisting training and refusing to do the tricks demanded of her at the Seaquarium, she died of multiple stress-related illnesses just three years after her capture. Sonny Boy lived another decade in captivity before he, too, passed away. (By contrast, dolphins in the wild often live up to 45 years.)


A Snowball's Legacy

The Carolina anger prompted by Snowball's capture and subsequent death led to expansion of Beaufort County's law into a statewide ban on the harassment and/or capture of sea mammals a few years later. Then, in 1972, President Richard Nixon expanded that effort by signing into effect the Marine Mammal Protection Act--the first act of Congress to specifically require an ecosystem approach to wildlife management.



In an odd twist, Carolina Snowball did eventually return to her Lowcountry home, at least partially. Today a life-size model of the graceful girl--including her actual skull and black teeth--hangs from the ceiling of the Port Royal Sound Foundation Maritime Center in Okatie, SC (see photo above). A similar model of Sonny Boy hangs next to her, just above an exhibit detailing their lives and the impact their experiences had on marine mammals today. Perhaps stop by and visit them the next time you're in the Lowcountry.


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